The Reel Iraq Festival 2013

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Iraqi art and culture form a critical part of its people’s history. Music, poetry, literature, paint, film and sculpture capture the resilience and grief of a people that has been translated into brilliance and creativity. Art is not intended to hang lifelessly on the walls of a gallery. It is meant to be a starting point for important discussions that help shape memories, form analyses, and lay the foundations for how we define ourselves.

In the Iraq of today, art is rarely decorative or hyper abstract to the point of irrelevance. The complex realities facing Iraqis, wherever they may be, usually force themselves onto the works of creative minds and find themselves manifested in the pixels, sounds, and letters that make up cultural production. This relationship, between reality and imagination, results in powerful and beautiful compositions and pieces of work. At times, the chaos and destruction of war adversely affect the strength of production, resulting in confused and reactionary works, a phenomenon most notably observed in the world of Iraqi pop music. Nonetheless, both play an important role in understanding Iraq.

In all societies, where the fabric of life itself is ravaged by greed and violence, art offers a powerful and accessible vehicle to empower ordinary people to re-imagine their shattered worlds, and forge a new one instead. In Iraq, contemporary art is being shaped by experiences of war, displacement and struggle, and a rich history of folklore, tradition and cultural heritage.

The Reel Iraq Festival is a Scottish based festival that will be showcasing Iraqi Art in a five day festival between March 21 – 25, 2013 and will be held across different cities in the United Kingdom. The program will include visual art exhibits, musical performances, film screenings, poetry readings, and more.

Watch The Reel Iraq Festival trailer:

We recently sat down with Dan Gorman, co-founder of the Festival to see why he chose art from and about Iraq as the subject of this year’s festival.

Q: Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the festival. A: I’m originally Irish. I have mainly lived between the United Kingdom and the Mideast for the past fourteen years. I have also lived in Edinburgh, hence the strong Scottish element in the festival. I’m also a musician and a sound collector.

In 2010, I lived in Syria for one year with my wife who was working on a film called “A Tale of Two Syrias.” Currently, I’m the director of a small NGO called Firefly International which is a charity focused on art and dialogue with a year round youth art project in north east Bosnia as well as the Reel Festival series.

Q: Dialogue between who and who? A: Our aim is to allow people to speak to each other and to communicate with each other directly. Iraqis don’t generally have a voice in the discussion and in shaping the discourse around their own country. Our main aim is to get Iraqi voices out there and get people to engage directly with Iraq. We provide a platform for people from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, without having their presence mediated by Western journalists and media.

Q: Dialogue is sometimes wrongfully suggested as a means of communication between an oppressed people and their oppressors. This mostly applies to Apartheid Israel, where Palestinians are “encouraged” to engage in this activity without taking power dynamics into account. How do you define dialogue within this context? A: We recognize the gross imbalance within the world and the importance of being careful with using terms such as dialogue within this context. This festival shouldn’t be seen as a get-out clause for the invasion of Iraq. However, we feel that it is important for people in the UK to be able to engage directly with this issue and hear voices that are coming from Iraq.

Hassan Bressm, below, was denied entry into the UK on the eve of the festival.
Q: How did the Reel Festival start? A: The first Reel Festival took place in 2008, and it was focused around Afghanistan. It took place one year after a trip I made to Afghanistan with a charity working on building schools. While I was there we met inspiring people working in really difficult circumstances. They were artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians. I came back inspired to spread the word about these artists and there work. At the time, there was only one story coming out from Afghanistan.

Areas of conflict are dehumanized, and we thought that the arts would be a way to put a human face on these areas and help the public relate to them. So we organized a festival in Edinburgh about Afghanistan and it featured film, music and literature. It went much better than we expected so we decided to keep going with it, and because many of the people involved in the festival had deep connections to Iraq, we thought that the following year, we would do a series of events focusing on Iraqi art and culture.

We also always dreamed of holding reciprocal events. We really tried to organize events inside Afghanistan and Iraq, but we didn’t have the capacity and the connection to do it. Instead, we brought people like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, film director Maysoon Pachachi and others to Edinburgh in 2009 for the first Reel Festival about Iraq. We have also organized a trilateral festival between Lebanon, Syria and the UK, and another about Syria alone.

Q: Why is Iraq one of the countries you choose to focus on? A: There are number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, there are personal reasons. I was involved in the mobilizations that took place around the world against the invasion of Iraq and, therefore, it holds an important place in my world. Also, we want to use the arts as a way of allowing people to engage with conflict and power dynamics. I don’t believe that the reasons behind conflict are very complex. I don’t believe that their root is in anything other than in power and resources.

An exhibition of infographics on Iraq by Mona Chalabi, part of The Reel Iraq Festival 2013:

These are some of the reasons of why we focused on Afghanistan and Iraq. We wanted to highlight these issues and we are trying to show that these are real places with real people making art. In the UK, this is important because the British government was heavily involved in the invasion of these countries. It’s important for people in the UK to engage with these places and keep them on their mind. Reel Festivals are very open to working with a number of other places, and we are in discussion about a number of future projects in Congo and Haiti.

Q: What was the response to the first Reel Iraq in 2009? A: The response was really positive. Originally, we were in Erbil. We brought four Iraqi poets together with 4 Scottish poets to work on translations of each other’s work. That work is now going to be presented in Reel Iraq around the UK.

To me, that was an interesting part of the project because it was a start to us trying to do these kinds of reciprocal events. We have given the chance for these poets to develop deep connections with each other.

One of the Scottish poets is from the Shetland Islands, which are small and remote islands that are approximately a twelve hour ferry ride off the coast of northern Scotland. She’s really trying to host some of the poets on the island, and that would be amazing, because we are about trying to build these long connections as a way of trying to undermine the justifications used for conflict and war. People in the Shetland Islands haven’t had much engagement with Iraqi poetry before and because of the work that we do, there are people currently reading Iraqi poetry there.

Q: Despite the difficulties, are there any ongoing efforts to build bridges with the Iraqi cultural community inside Iraq? A: I’m really keen to maintain links inside Iraq. There are already some great initiatives that are doing that. There is Sada, a program run by Rijin Sahakian. There is also the Independent Film and Television College, which is a film training center in Baghdad. There’s also another organization in Baghdad, called Al Noor, and we want to give all these organizations the recognition that they are due.

Q: Why did you choose the three main pillars of Reel Iraq to be film, music, and poetry? A: Film is a great method of communication, and it is great for people to see what Iraq is really like. People have one image of Iraq. We want to give people the chance to have a more nuanced understanding of the country and its people, and film is a great way to do that. The opening film that we are showing, Dreams of Sparrows, is really important because the film maker travels around the country with his camcorder soon after the invasion and interviews ordinary people on the streets, to get their opinion about what is going on. Then, there are other films that offer a more poetic view of Iraq, again, presenting a more detailed and different understanding of the place.

As for music, it is a great way to get people to engage with Iraq. You also get to attract a different audience with music, and most people don’t unfortunately associate Iraq with music. Although visual art isn’t one of the main three stands, it is nonetheless important, and there are many exhibitions that are on as part of Reel Iraq.

Someone like Hanna Malallah does incredible work. Her pieces are a very strong way to get people’s attention. They are very stark. When I see her work, they really bring across her experiences and her mourning for what happened in Iraq.

Artwork by Hanna Malallah

Artwork by Hanna Malallah, an Iraqi artist featured in the festival.

Poetry is an intrinsic part of Iraq. There is a very lively poetry scene in the country, such as the gatherings in the Shabander Café in Baghdad.

See the Shabander Café, historic hangout for poets and intellectuals in Baghdad:

We have good connects in the poetry scene in the UK, so it is a natural link for us to make, and have it as one of the core elements. We also try and publish the works. We published an e-book of new translations of poetry from the Syria Lebanon Scotland project and we’re aiming to try do that again from Iraq.

The last time we did the new translations of Poetry, we had filmmaker Roxana Vilk with us who did a series of short films about the poets that were participating in the festival. She then used that material to make a pitch to Al Jazeera, which they then commissioned for a six part series called Poets of Protest, which incidentally featured an Iraqi poet by the name of Manal Al Sheikh. Roxana also came with us Iraq this time and made a series of short films with the poets from the Scottish project, which we will be releasing soon after the festival.

Q: You strive to give Iraq a new image in the UK and break stereotypes, but a lot of the ways in which Iraqis are perceived stem from racism. How much of an anti-racist mandate drives the festival and its work? A: All of the people working in the festival come from a very strong anti racist and anti imperialist perspective. We also believe in the right of people to move freely across borders, and we flag up these elements in our work. We do it by trying to show common links instead of perceived differences. Anti-racism principles certainly drive a lot of our work.

Reel Iraq 2013 marks 10 years since the US and UK led military invasion, against which the world mobilized in solidarity with the people of Iraq. Reel Iraq will explore the contribution of art, culture and creativity to Iraqi life in a time of conflict, with over 50 events taking place in London, Edinburgh, Bristol, Glasgow, Dumfries, Leeds, Derry/Londonderry, Newcastle and Stirling.